Ethical Thinking

Ought I to Do This? The Ethical Question

The pursuit of philosophy inevitably leads us to the question of what we ought to do to live a good life. Ethical thinking is the domain for this discussion. For thousands of years, philosophers have debated what constitutes a good life. As a part of that, they have pondered the question, “Is there a universal ought?” How ought I to live? How ought you to live?  Do the same “oughts” apply to both of us? When we speak of these “oughts,” we are discussing ethics or the study of what is moral good.

The Place of Ethics

In their Introduction to Philosophy textbook  (see chapter 10) B.N.Moore and K. Bruder make the following statement:

The most important question of ethics, however, is simply, Which moral judgments are correct? That is, what is good and just and the morally right thing to do? What is the “moral law,” anyway? This question is important because the answer to it tells us how we should conduct our affairs. Perhaps it is the most important question not of ethics but of philosophy. Perhaps it is the most important question, period. 

What Is Good and Ethical?

This study of ethics is vitally important in our day as we face so many differing ideas of what is good. We have conflicting voices declaring the way people are using carbon based fuels is immoral and others who declare that to ban them is immoral. We have, perhaps closer to our own reality, hackers who are trying to seize control of your computer, maybe even while you are reading this, so that they can demand a ransom. The ethical question is, since the hackers are able to do this, ought they to be doing it?

Ethics is the study of how those decisions get made. What is good? What is the good life? Which option is morally preferable among the many choices there may be?

 A Case In Point

Let’s look at it this way. The ransomware hackers want to have a better life than they currently have. They know that ransomware is generating billions of dollars of income for others who are doing this. So, since thy want a better life, why not join in? It is predicted that businesses will spend over $11 billion this year alone to pay off hackers who place ransomware on their computers.  Every fourteen seconds some business is given a ransom notice.

What is the moral thing to do? Is it to give the hackers our money so they will go away or not? When our culture in North America glorifies money and getting as much as possible, it seems that we are promoting the thought that getting money in whatever way possible is moral. Therefore, the hackers are doing right for themselves as they try to get as much for themselves as possible.


What are the steps involved in deciding ethical dilemmas? How does anyone go about finding the good, honorable life? Those are questions that we will return to another day. For now, what are you thinking? I’d like to read what you have to say!

Wisdom has seven pillars

Wisdom? Folly?


Some years ago I wrote meditations which reflected on how I experienced a pilgrimage to Greece. As I reflected on what we saw and learned, I realized that in Greece, philosophy and the discussion of what constituted wisdom and folly were of great importance. As our resident philosopher, Dr Clouser, is away from our blog this week, I thought I would post one of the meditations I wrote. Enjoy!

A Scripture Text about Wisdom

13 The woman Folly is loud;
she is undisciplined and without knowledge.
14 She sits at the door of her house,
on a seat at the highest point of the city,
:15 calling out to those who pass by,
who go straight on their way.
:16 “Let all who are simple come in here!”
she says to those who lack judgment.
:17 “Stolen water is sweet;
food eaten in secret is delicious!”
:18 But little do they know that the dead are there,
  that her guests are in the depths of the grave.
Proverbs 9:13

The Acropolis in Athens

Wisdom has seven pillars
Wisdom and folly

High on the Acropolis in Athens is the Erechtheum.  A significant feature of this temple dedicated to Athena and the memory of her contest with Poseidon for the allegiance of the Athenians’ hearts is the porch of the Caryatids.  The temple was built in about 400 BC.  It is one of the more intriguing spots on the Acropolis.  Each of the pillars for the roof of this porch is a carved statue of a woman.  And each of them is unique. The ones on the near side all have the same leg moving forward and the three on the far side have the other bent forward.  Each seems to be inviting people to come to enjoy the cool shade of the porch they are providing by holding up the roof.  The statues demonstrate the skill of the artist to create something beautiful. 

You Cannot Go There

Yet, one of the interesting features of this porch was that it was only accessible from the inside.  Authorized religious figures could recline in the shade; and no one else.  It was an inviting place, yet was off limits.  That helps me to understand something of how Solomon’s personification of Folly can be understood.  The woman Folly has gone to the highest point of the city to call out to all the simple people, “Come to me!”  However, the problem is that no one can actually do that. 

The promise could not be carried out.  In reality, the promise was instead an empty invitation.  In fact, as Solomon says, little do the simple know that the dead are there, her guests are in the depths of the grave.   As this porch beckons to us to relax in the shade, little do we know that the dead are buried there.  This porch contains the tomb of an ancient king of Athens according to tradition. 

Seek Wisdom

But I react negatively to that thought. I believe it is good and right to avoid deceptiveness.  Furthermore, I am convinced that is what Solomon was saying as well.  He speaks about wisdom who has also gone to the highest point of the city. Wisdom calls to people to come to her and so to learn how to have understanding in life.  I know this pushes the symbolism in ways that maybe no one else sees, but Solomon’s wisdom has sent out her maidens and hewn out her pillars which are seven in number.  The porch of the Caryatids has only six.  Isn’t that the way it always is with humanity?  We come up short of what God desires us to be. We flounder around in folly, and miss out on wisdom.

Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment: Pros / Cons

Capital Punishment Background

Over the course of the 20th century, almost every industrialized nation has abandoned capital punishment except the US. This arguably points to the conclusion the rest of the western world has taken the moral high road. Meanwhile, the US remains relatively barbaric. “Besides”, we are told over and over, “there is no conclusive evidence that capital punishment (also known popularly as the death penalty) deters murder.” The Christian political activist might address the issue in the following way. (For an extensive review of the current status of the death penalty in the US, click here)

Capital Punishment
Death Row Inmate

            The law of Moses provides the first Scriptural basis for the execution of the convicted person in cases of premeditated murder. The fact that the victim bore the image of God forms the bedrock of this particular law. Further, the doctrine of a human being bears the image of God continues in the New Testament. The Scriptural teaching re the image of God in humanity means all humans have equal rights (Gen. 1:27 –31, Acts 17:26, Gal 3:28). If, as we believe, the image of God in humanity is the ground for equal rights, then how can we ignore it when seeking a Biblical understanding of the issues surrounding first degree murder?

The Need for Deterrence?

I know someone will say that capital punishment deters other would be murderers. However, so long as this doctrine is the basis for capital punishment, the deterrence argument need not be raised. The image of God in humanity makes the reason for execution that this is what the murderer deserves.  The wonder of the image of God in human beings will best deter others from premeditated killing.

            How do we explain the fact that so many nations have abandoned capital punishment? In my opinion, this change demonstrates just one of many shifts among western nations away from broadly biblical assumptions for democracy to broadly humanistic ones. Where God’s Kingdom that is not the highest value, some single aspect of human nature asserts itself. Humanism urges the acceptance of the teaching regarding the greatest good. The single aspect of a human being could be such as rationality, feeling, or will. The problem arises that there is no higher value than human life and execution is itself just another crime.

Whose Life Is Worth More?

Some version of the humanist creed also seems to underlie the compromise view about capital punishment now popular in the US. The compromise urges the avoidance of a death sentence. Humanism reaches a striking conclusion. The argument revolves around who or how many
victims there are. This criterion will or will not warrant the use of the death penalty. On this view, the death penalty is deserved, say, if the Pope or the President or 25 people were murdered. One ordinary person? Then no.

The humanist creed asserts that many victims or a famous victim “contained” more of whatever human quality is being regarded as the highest value. Then the wrong involved in taking the murderer’s life is outweighed on the justice scales by the greater wrong committed by his crime. From the biblical view, however, there are no degrees of being in God’s image; each human life has equal value and should enjoy equal protection. The premeditated destruction of any person should be equally punished. That holds no matter whether it was one person or many, the President or a homeless street person. (These thoughts and more are found here.)

A Safeguard

Perhaps you agree with all I’ve said so far. But you would still object that the danger of executing the wrong person outweighs all else. This is a serious point. It focuses our thoughts on the need for new safeguards in our justice system.

            Presently a death sentence carries an automatic appeal so that a higher court can review the case to make sure there were no errors in legal procedure at the trial. That is not enough.

The first thing we need to add is a review of the facts and evidence. A review board formed in every public defenders’ office (but not limited to only cases defended by that office) will do the review. Evidence tainted by illegal means will not stand in review. I judge this evidential review is as necessary as to catch unfair trial procedures.

            Secondly, we need to impose this penalty only when the evidence is not merely “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It must be beyond all doubt. And there are such cases. The evidence is some cases is irrefutable. These are cases where a defendant is caught on sound, color, videotape, has the victim’s blood on him, and/or is caught in the act. According to this proposal, when the evidence is anything less than completely certain, the sentence may be for life, but the death penalty should not be allowed.

Amusing Ourselves: Life Has Changed

New Year’s Musings

Since I wrote a post-Christmas reflection, it seems only right to follow it up with a reflection on the new year. As I pondered the reality of time’s forward march, I decided to take a moment to share with you my reflections. I hope you find these musings amusing.  So here goes.

The first thing is to express my gratitude to God for seeing yet another new year. This makes 81 of them, so the gratitude could hardly be more genuine.

Of course, I don’t actually remember them all. The first new year in my lifetime was 1938, and I was not even 1 year old. But I can recall quite a number of the years since then, and am surprised by the great changes they’ve brought. I don’t mean by that the technology changes – everybody knows about that. I mean the changes in people’s attitudes.

When I Wore a Younger Man’s Clothes

For example, in the 1940’s (my youth), the average person listened to the radio a couple times a week for its entertainment value.  When the day’s work was done, folks would listen to the news (world, then national, very little local), and perhaps a comedian or two. Many comedy shows were on the radio in the 40’s.  Jack Benny, Fred Allan, Fanny Brice, and Jimmy Durante all had weekly shows. There was also Duffy’s Tavern, Blondie, and The Great Gildersleeve.  My parents withheld some shows because they were too scary for a young person like me.  Among them were  The Inner Sanctum and The Shadow. There were kids shows too.  Let’s Pretend, The Lone Ranger, and the Buster Brown show are examples. The shows were all a half hour long, and no one I knew – or knew of – heard them all every week.

In other words, the average person – kid or grown-up – listened to less entertainment in a week than the average kid now sees TV in the average day! There’s something mighty sobering about that.

Did You Know …

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Did you know that the word “amuse” means “not think?”

The kids I see today continually amuse themselves throughout just about every day. My students at the college couldn’t walk from one class to another without plugging in earbuds to hear music or podcasts. The average US home has 2.3 TV sets.  The average person in the US watches over 5 hours of TV per day.

That’s a lot of not thinking.

Maybe worship is not amusing?

We keep hearing that church attendance in the US is in decline, despite the fact that the vast majority of people regard themselves as “spiritual.” No one can say for sure what all the causes of that decline are.  I suspect one of the factors is how much more pleasant it is to be amused and how readily available the sources of amusement are.

compassion for people

Compassion for people

Attending church requires that we think about what we’re doing and to whom our worship is addressed. It requires us to reflect on our lives and attitudes in ways that are often painful. And its message – the gospel – frequently winds up demanding that we change ourselves. On top of that, it constantly reminds us of the needs of others and of our obligations to them.

In short, church worship challenges our culture of amusement. It is, therefore, something that stands in opposition to the general flow of our culture. Just as we can say in the face of any serious question, “Let’s have a drink and forget it,” so too we can avoid being confronted with the gospel’s unpleasant truths about ourselves by simply skipping worship.

A New Year’s Resolution

So how about this for a new year’s resolution? How about a little more church and a little less not-thinking  (amusing ourselves)?


Roy Clouser

Belief in God: Does Science Make This Obsolete? Part 2

Definition of Materialism

One last thing. The prevalent form of contemporary Naturalism today is materialism. This is the belief that some (unspecified) exclusively physical realities are the self-existent (divine) realities. The two most popular versions of materialism are: 1) all that exists are purely physical things governed only by physical laws, and 2) purely physical things and laws produce all that is non-physical. Many of those who hold to these materialist views of reality try to justify them by claiming they are necessary to science or are somehow endorsed by science. For example,  George Johnson composed a review of two books by theists who are distinguished scientists. In the review, he dismissed their point that they saw no conflict between their science and their Christianity.  Johnson writes, “But theism and materialism don’t stand on equal footings. The assumption of materialism is fundamental to science.” (Scientific American, Oct. 2006, p. 95).

Proposing a Thought Experiment

That claim should at least look mighty suspicious even to those who wish it were true! For in fact every major figure in the rise of modern science was a theist. But that aside, what the claim asserts is literally nonsense. The reason is, that no one can so much as frame the idea of anything as purely physical. When we take “physical” to refer to that which is subject to physical laws, then our inability to provide any idea of “purely physical” can be confirmed.  We accomplish this by the simple thought experiment of trying to conceive of anything as purely physical.

Take as a first example, your concept of a stone. Now strip from that concept every quantitative property since these are not physical (numbers are not subject to physical laws). That will mean there is no “how much” to the stone so that it cannot be counted or measured. Now likewise strip away every spatial property so that it has no size or shape or location (spatial shapes and locations are also not governed by physical laws).

Next in our little experiment, remove any content of the concept that is in any way biotic so that the stone will not have any of these features. For example, the stone cannot be dangerous to life or able to be part of a bird’s digestive processes. Then divest it of any sensory property so that it is in principle unable to be perceived (this will mean, among other things, that no observations could possibly confirm any theory about it). Next subtract from your concept the stone’s logical property of being able to be distinguished from other things, and finally take from it the linguistic potentiality of being able to be referred to in language.

Now tell me what you have left. Have you any idea whatever?

What is Left of the Stone in the Experiment

Granted, some of the properties I’ve just mentioned are true of the stone only passively; the stone doesn’t actively possess sensory, logical, or linguistic properties. But unless it had the passive potentialities to be perceived, to be distinguished, and to be referred to, none of those actions could be performed on it by us. Each one of those potentialities requires that it be subject to other-than-physical laws: laws of perception or logic or linguistic rule.

Moreover, this result  accrues when this experiment is applied to concrete objects. The result is equally valid when it is applied to abstract properties that are physical. To see why this is so, you need only repeat the experiment using an abstract property as our test case. Let’s use the property of (physical) weight. What is weight which has no amount or is nowhere. Is weight unable to be perceived?  Could weight be distinguished from any other property? Can weight not be referred to in language?

Therefore, …..

This experiment destroys materialism as a plausible theory and exposes it as a divinity belief which is as unprovable as is belief in God. It’s unprovable because there is no recovery from the point that materialists cannot so much as frame the idea of what they claim to be true, and what cannot be conceived of cannot be proven. The real ground of the materialist belief, then, is the person’s experience of having it appear self-evidently true to each person individually, not that it is necessary to science.

Our thought experiment shows materialism to be a divinity belief with the special difficulty that nothing can so much as be conceived as purely physical.  As such, materialism is a belief in worse shape than the assertion that there are square circles. When we speak of a “square circle” we at least have an idea of what we’re talking about. That’s how we know the expression names an impossible entity. But when we say the words “purely physical” we have no idea whatever of anything it could name. The thought experiment shows that the expression “purely physical” is literally meaningless.

Materialism Is An Inconceivable Myth

For this reason, materialism is not an assumption scientists actually employ in their work. Even scientists who are avid materialists are forced to treat the concrete objects and the abstract properties and laws they work with in physics as possessing quantitative, spatial, sensory, logical, linguistic, and many other kinds of properties. For example, they do mathematical calculations upon the data being investigated. They regard their sensory perceptions of observed tests as evidence. They take precautions when working with materials that can be biologically hazardous. Each one has to have economic concerns about the cost of their experiments. In short, no one ever actually works with the mythical class of the purely physical. Because that myth is literally inconceivable, it has zero explanatory power even as a theory of reality, let alone as a part of physics.[i]

The thought experiment exposes the fact that as materialists do science, the term “physical” means that what they focus on are the physical properties of entities that all the while plainly exhibit other kinds of properties as well. And when they discuss materialism they shift the meaning of the term to designate their fictional “purely physical” entities. Thus, although they hold the view that the purely physical entities are the ultimate (divine) realities, they work in physics with theories and experiments that never deal with anything as exclusively physical. Moreover, this is not just a slip-up on their part that could be overcome if only they were more attentive. Rather, as we’ve just seen, it’s because they can’t so much as frame the idea of anything as exclusively physical.

Theism On the Other Hand

Belief in God, on the other hand, played an important role in the rise of modern science.  Alfred North Whitehead, a Naturalist philosopher of science, made this observation. First, I’ll quote him concerning his Naturalism. Whitehead says:

What is the status of the enduring stability in

the order of nature? There is the summary

answer, which refers nature to some greater

reality standing behind it. This reality occurs

in the history of thought under many names,

the Absolute, Brahma, the Order of Heaven, God…

My point is that any summary conclusion

          jumping from… such an order of nature to the

easy assumption that there is an ultimate reality…

constitutes the great refusal of rationality to

assert its rights. We have to search whether

nature does not in its very being show itself as



Then there is Whitehead’s observation about belief in God and the rise of science:


…the greatest contribution of [the middle ages]

to the formation of the scientific movement [was]

the inexpugnable belief that every detailed

occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents

in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles…

When we compare this

tone of thought in Europe with the attitudes

of other civilizations when left to themselves,

            there seems to be but one source for its origin.

It must come from the medieval

insistence on the rationality of God… [iii]


Roy Clouser

[i]           This argument and a non-reductionist theory of reality are both developed in my book, The Myth of Religious Neutrality (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005).

[ii]           Science and the Modern World, (NY: Free Press, 1967), 92.

[iii]“The Origins of Modern Science” in Science and the Modern World. Ibid., 12.